Anonymous looks make this M5 the perfect ‘sleeper’
This example has been fastidiously maintained
BMW’s inline six produces 282bhp and 251lb ft
UK-spec 16in alloys still look fantastic today
Spindly window pillars afford fantastic visibility
Suspension is fairly soft but the M5 is still composed
If you have a few followers on social media, you can be sure that any picture you post of any interesting car will earn some kind of reaction from at least a few people. Then, just occasionally, you get an avalanche.
My most recent was when I posted a picture of this 1987 BMW M5 parked in a field on a wet day. It may look like just another three-box saloon, but there is so much love for it that even I, an E28 fan since day one, was surprised by the response.
To me, and I guess, to them, its visual ordinariness lies at the heart of its appeal. Actually, Ian Sutton’s superb car seen here (number 185 of 187 right-hand-drive cars built) is in the minority of first-generation M5s having the M-Technic bodykit from the far less powerful M535i. Without it, you’d need to be spotting alloy wheels, badges, a slightly deeper front spoiler and body-coloured wing mirrors to tell the difference.
But different it was. Priced north of £30,000 at launch, it cost more than half as much again as the more sporty-looking M535i, but what you were buying was not so much a souped-up 5 Series, but an ultra-low- volume, highly specialised four-door supercar built not on the line with all the other 5 Series variants, but by hand by BMW Motorsport.
Most obviously, it had the twin cam, 24-valve 3.5-litre engine first used in the M1, albeit with different pistons, rods and management. Today, 282bhp might not seem like much, but when this car came out, it was more than you’d find under the engine cover of the Ferrari 328 GTB.
But there was far more to the original M5 than that: it had a close-ratio Getrag gearbox and bespoke suspension geometry, shock absorbers, rollbars and spring rates. There were bigger brakes, those beautiful 16in wheels (for the UK market) and chunkier tyres, too.
Inside, it was even harder to tell the difference: there’s an M-Technic wheel, an M-badge where the fuel economy gauge should be in the rev counter and more on the heavily bolstered sports seats. Look really closely and you’ll notice the speedometer reads up to 170mph instead of the usual 160mph, but it lacks even the red needles or oil temperature gauge of its contemporary, the E30 M3. At the time, the M5 seemed pretty understated, but in today’s world where a car’s kudos in the sports car market appears defined by the amount of aerodynamic addenda it wears, it seems very nearly invisible.
You sit high in the M5 and notice first how narrow it is, then how phenomenally airy it feels and, lastly, how easy it is to see out of. The body’s squared off sides make it exceptionally easy to negotiate down lanes, increasing both its point-to-point speed and your confidence and enjoyment of the car. The engine is pure automotive aristocracy. Its voice is clean, sharp, rich and smooth, pregnant with promise yet quiet enough not to intrude. Most E28 M5s have done big mileages, because their first owners gleefully used them as all-purpose daily drivers, dispatching everything this side of an uncommonly powerful Ferrari with barely a puff of smoke from its twin central tailpipes. The gearshift is quite slow but very precise and the ratios are beautifully chosen; sufficiently closely stacked to make the most of the engine’s limited torque, but long enough in fifth so as not to get breathless.
The car’s dimensions make it very easy to drive fast, while the power makes it a very quick one, not just by the standards of 30 years ago, but also those of today. A large executive saloon it may have been in its day, but it’s lighter than a brand new Volkswagen Golf R and only a fraction less powerful. And once its engine gets above 4200rpm, it simply sings around to its 7000rpm redline. You could have more fun in this boxy old saloon just travelling in a straight line than most modern sporting cars down your favourite country road.
It handles far better than you’d expect, too. The E28 5 Series was quite loose at the rear, especially in the wet, but for all BMW added to the M5 in terms of extra power, it added more in terms of chassis stability. Those suspension modifications allied to a standard limited-slip differential means that while the M5 still rides softly compared with modern cars, it has no shortage of composure. Its steering has perfect gearing, impressive accuracy and feel of a kind that you just don’t find in this kind of car anymore. I wasn’t about to wrench it loose through a quick corner on a wet road in front of its owner, but I drove it as fast as it felt it wanted to be driven and loved how naturally it f lowed from mild understeer to gorgeous neutrality as I applied power from the apex.
Really, though, I just loved being in it. Being old enough (just) to be testing these cars when they were new, I’d been worried about reacquainting myself: 30 years is a long time and not only is the M5 indescribably different to its modern descendants, but I am not the same person I was three decades ago.
And yet, like all the best friendships, we just picked up where we’d left off. Within seconds of getting inside of the M5 I was remembering things about this car I’d not thought of for a generation – the little check panel in the roof and the way you have to nudge the brake pedal to make its warning light go out; the charmingly complicated electric seat switches, the bristles either side of the handbrake lever and the way the seat and pedals are directly aligned, but with the steering wheel bizarrely displaced towards the centre of the car.
I don’t think any car has done understated power better than the E28 M5, which is why of all Q-cars, it is my favourite. Many cars have real charm, but very few also have such natural, unassuming class.
Nine more Q-Cutters:
Built 1987-1992 Price range £10,000-£250,000 We’d pay What you can One we found Sadly none are currently for sale in the UK
A front-wheel-drive family car based on the Fiat Croma, made immortal by its 3.0-litre Ferrari V8. It goes hard, sounds amazing and handles terribly.
Built 1996-1997 Price range £3000- £6000 We’d pay £5000 One we found A 1996 850R, fully loaded, black estate, described as ‘excellent original condition’ for £4750.
A 250bhp Volvo estate might not seem that amazing today, but 20 years ago the concept was earth- shattering. And the 850R sounds even better than it looks.
Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9
Built 1975-1981 Price range £18,000- £70,000 We’d pay £40,000 One we found 1979 6.9, only 60,000 miles from new, left-hand drive, optional velour interior. Yours for £40,000.
The 450SEL 6.9 is almost indistinguishable from the regular W116 S-Class that most people bought, but it has an engine (a 262bhp V8) twice the size. It’s a tidal wave on wheels.
Built 2001-2004 Price range £2750-£8000 We’d pay £5000 One we found 2002 W8 Estate, 122,000 miles from new, genuine UK car, fully loaded for £4500.
Volkswagen should have realised that putting a 4.0-litre eight-cylinder motor in a Passat would be a hard sell. The car bombed in the sales charts, but not before a great Q-car was created.
Rover 75 V8
Built 2003-2005 Price range £5000- £15,000 We’d pay £8500 One we found 2004 MG ZT 260 saloon, 49,000 miles. It’s the MG version because Rovers are incredibly rare, but the powertrain is the same: £8995.
We all fondly remember the lunatic MG ZT 260, with its 4.6-litre Mustang V8, but who recalls that, briefly, there was a Rover version as well? With anonymous looks and 256bhp, it could be the ultimate stealth weapon.
Built 2003-2007 Price range £10,000 -£25,000 We’d pay £13,000 One we found A 2006 XJR in ebony black with 67k miles. Full service history, Alpine speaker upgrade: £12,450.
Looks middle-aged but has 400bhp V8 under the bonnet. Also, this was the first Jaguar with an aluminium monocoque so it’s not only very light and therefore fast, it’s resistant to rot too.
Built 1991-1994 Price range £10,000- £30,000 We’d pay £15,000 One we found 1993 500E, 170,000 miles. Big mileage but not a problem if properly maintained: £14,950.
A 5.0-litre V8-engined, mid-sized Mercedes engineered and built by Porsche. Superb to drive and brilliantly easy to live with, if it came with right-hand drive it could have been an even bigger hit here in the UK.
Jaguar Mk2 3.8
Built 1959-1967 Price range £13,000- £70,000 We’d pay £35,000 One we found 1966 3.8, manual with overdrive, mileage not stated. Restored in 2008, interior refurbished in 2011: £35,995.
Most Jaguars of this era had gutless 2.4-litre straight-six motors. The 3.8-litre, however, was good for 125mph, which in an affordable 1950s saloon was simply unprecedented.
Volkswagen Golf R
Built 2014-present Price range £17,000-£36,650 We’d pay £20,000 One we found 2014 Golf R 5dr, manual gearbox, dark blue, 25,000 miles. Full Volkswagen service history from new. For sale at £20,995.
So inconspicuous that, debadged, it could be taken for a normal GTI, but the 300bhp under the bonnet combined with four-wheel drive tells a rather different story.